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Succeeding as spokesperson.

The television cameras are rolling. They're trained on you. The reporter, so cordial moments ago, asks you a hideous question. It's more than hideous - it's The Question From Hell. Your heart pounds. Your mouth goes dry. You know you have to say something. But what?

If you think this sounds like a nightmare, you're right. But it's one that just may come true. It doesn't matter whom your association represents. It doesn't matter what position you hold. You're kidding yourself if you think you're immune. No industry or profession is immune to crisis, and none is immune to the controversy, confrontation, and public scrutiny that come with it. If the Girl Scouts of the USA can be hit by a crisis (and they were, years ago when their cookies were targeted by a tamperer), then your association can be, too.

"Ah," you say, "but I'm not the chair, I'm not in public relations, I'm not an official association spokesperson." Whether or not you are doesn't matter to the reporter who's been told to get an interview for the evening news. If you're the only one around, you're the one who'll get the questions, and you'll have no time to learn even the most basic survival tactics.

Preparing beforehand is key

Most of us prepare in some way for personal crises. We take courses in CPR or first aid. We teach our children about dialing 911.

I've never understood why so few people make the same effort to prepare for professional crises. It's obvious they don't. Just turn on the television.

Aren't you amazed by the number of unskilled people representing their organizations on news magazine shows, talk shows, and the evening news? Don't you wonder why they don't prepare for these interviews? It's simple. They never thought it would happen to them. When it did, they had no time to prepare.

Naturally, there are exceptions. The handling of the Tylenol crisis was a classic case of good training paying off. The result was honest, positive crisis management. Today Tylenol enjoys nearly the same market share it had before the tampering crisis began. It's far from the dead product Wall Street had predicted.

In that crisis, the battle was fought on two fronts. The first was the corporate front, on which Johnson & Johnson acted promptly and communicated quickly with the public.

The second was on the association front, where the Nonprescription Drug Manufacturers Association (then The Proprietary Association), Washington, D.C., also acted quickly. Volunteer leaders and staff spent untold hours testifying, talking with the media, and issuing public statements in a successful effort to protect the entire industry from massive overregulation.

In this example, both the corporation in crisis and its representative trade association took decisive action and gave the public messages that were honest, clear, positive, and informative.

In this media age, it's irresponsible to assume such as crisis won't happen to you. Association staff and volunteers should know how to cope with the public scrutiny that has become increasingly more common.

The fear factor

Late one September, the president of a major trade association heard from 60 Minutes. The show's producers were preparing a segment concerning a few consumers who felt they'd been wronged by industry members. The companies in question had refused to provide representatives to be interviewed for the show. The association CEO was asked if he would agree to an on-camera interview. He did, and within a few days Ed Bradley interviewed him.

Having trained this CEO for just such a scenario, I was delighted by his appearance. It was a good example of damage control. But even if he'd given a less than sterling performance, at least the audience wouldn't have heard those terribly damaging words, "He refused to talk to us."

The association executive was prepared. Too bad those who refused to be interviewed weren't. But it's natural to be afraid of the unknown. For most people, the world of media interviews is a frightening mystery, made all the more frightening by the hostile tactics many investigative reporters use. Consequently, many people won't accept interviews.

It's a shame. In the end everyone loses: the media, as sources dry up; the public because people get incomplete information; and those who refuse interviews, when their sides of the story never get told. Their only recourse is to complain about a one-sided story, which they could have prevented in the first place.

There's no reason to set yourself up for this kind of loss and no reason for you to be afraid of reporters. Most reporters are honorable people. They're trying to do a good job in an honest way. Their job is to get, then five, information. Your job is to provide it. Explain the subject, tell them what happened, and relate what you're doing about it.

But what about those less than tactful reporters? I must confess, if they cleaned up their act, I'd lose a good deal of business. A large portion of my work is training people to handle the reporter who's "out to get you."

Once you know how to play along with with sensational reporters, they'll no longer pose a threat. They're no more dangerous than journalists who are simply looking for information. If you don't know how to play their game, though, they can turn you into public enemy number one.

Rules for survival

The basic rules for coping with the pressure of crisis interview are simple, but there are a number of them. They involve using your mind, your face, your body, and your voice in ways that may feel unnatural in a stressful situation. How you use each is important, but the way you use your mind is most crucial. You use your face, body, and voice to control how you say something, but it's you mind that governs what you say. If what you say is a disaster, all the style in the world won't help you.

In any crisis, the worst two words in the English language are "no comment." When you respond to the question this way, the audience hears two other words: "I'm guilty." Fair or not, that's the impression you'll create.

I realize the association attorney, CEO, or chair may instruct you not to make any public statements. I won't second-guess them, but let's face it, "no comment" is a statement. If you can say that, why not instead say something that shows you want to be helpful?

Exactly what you say depends on the nature of the crisis, or the reason for media interest. It might be appropriate to say, "I'm sorry, our attorney has asked me not to discuss the case before the committee (judge, jury, commission) has had a chance to hear the evidence." Or, "I don't have the latest, most accurate information. If you'll call Mary Smith in our public information office, she'll bring you up-to-date."

Just as the words "no comment" should never pass your lips, you should never give the media a reason to say, "They refused to talk to us." If you're not willing to talk, the assumption is you have something to hide, and people assume that something must be bad.

Some image consultants will tell you to prepare for an interview by selecting X number of points you want to make. Then, in the interview, they recommend you answer every question with one of your planned statements.

Those who follow this advice, however, come off as ridiculous. The public sees right through that kind of sham and yearns for someone who will answer the question directly.

Answering questions without a crib sheet doesn't mean you have to surrender control to the interviewer. Let's take a specific question. Assume you manage the association's political action committee. PACs and the impact they have on our government are tremendous interest to the public and the media. Chances are good you've heard, or soon will hear, something like, "Why are you bribing our elected officials?"

This isn't really a question, it's an accusation. You're being accused of a crime.

What's the first answer that comes to mind? "We're not bribing anyone."

Here's a much calmer and more effective way to look at it. Most of the worst questions, the ones with the greatest potential for damage, contain a buzzword. In this case, it's bribe. But it could be rip-off, greed, recklessnes, price-gouging, toxic, sexism, or any other word that suggests you've done something illegal, immoral, unjust, or just plain stupid.

The buzzword is a weed. When you respond with the first thing that comes to mind ("We aren't bribing anyone."), you're watering that weed. You're repeating the buzzword and implanting it firmly in the listeners' minds. Guess what they'll remember about the interview? That you've been accused of bribery.

The unscrupulous reporter knows your first instinct will be a defensive denial. You've been set up, but you don't have to fall. Remember, your job in an interview is to give information. The denial, irresistible though it may seem, doesn't inform.

There is a way to answer the question without denying accusations. But first, you have to figure out what the real question is.

To do that, pause and think how the question might be phrased in a more objective manner. "Why are you bribing our elected officials?" now becomes, "What role do political action committees play?"

While you pause, remain silent. One of the most common misconceptions among spokespeople is that questions must be answered right away. Otherwise, this faulty line of reasoning goes, you'll look as though you're cooking up a lie, groping, or, worst of all, you're stupid. Not so.

It's better to be silent and thoughtful than appear frightened and uncertain by stalling with, "Well, uh ... " or "You know ... " These noises and false starts never help. Indeed, they will only frustrate your audience.

While you pause to think, maintain eye contact. If you move your eyes, especially from side to side, you'll be viewed as "shifty eyed" - the last thing you want if you've just been accused of immorality.

The combination of silence and eye contact will keep you from seeming unsure, dishonest, intimidated, or stupid, and will give you an air of confidence and control.

The elements of a good answer

Answering unfriendly questions is easy once you get the hang of it. Let's say you represent oil companies. You may hear, "Why are you holding us hostage to foreign oil" or "Why are you price-gouging?" The real questions here might be, "What would it take for the United States to become energy independent?" and "How do you determine prices?"

If yours is an association of fruit and vegetable growers, you may get a question like, "Why are you killing our children with pesticides?" This is designed to create hysteria. The real question you should answer is, "How can we be sure the food we give our children is safe?"

Or, let's say you're faced with a terrorist act at your annual meeting, or your accountant embezzles hundreds of thousands of dollars and hops a flight to Rio. In either case, you could be faced with this question: "Some simple precautions could have prevented this. Why did you invite disaster?" The real question is, "What security systems did you have in place?"

In any case, once you have determined the real question, you can develop an answer. Again, the best answers provide information. That information should be honest, positive, understandable, and memorable.

Above all, honesty is essential. I'm sure I don't have to tell you not to lie. But by honesty I mean much more than simply not lying. Honesty means acknowledging a problem if there is one. That's not an admission of guilt.

Honesty also means a willingness, if appropriate, to make two very difficult statements: "I don't know" and "I don't understand your question."

Again, don't be so afraid of looking stupid that you get yourself into hot water. You can't know everything; that's perfectly understandable. But never make up an answer if you don't know. You may not feel that's lying, but that's how it will be perceived. If and when you say you don't know the answer, be sure to follow up with an offer to find out (and do), or provide the name of someone who knows.

Also, you'll never look stupid by asking that a question be rephrased. If you didn't understand the question, chances are good the audience didn't either.

When I say an answer should be positive, I simply mean you should say what you've accomplished, not what you've failed to do. Some of the best information is so obvious that the person under fire doesn't think of it. Yet an organization that's been around for some years has obviously been doing something right.

Make sure your answer is easy to understand, too. That doesn't mean you should talk down to the reporter' just realize that you're much more familiar with your association's subject, your area of expertise, than the average person.

You may be so used to talking to other members, association staff, and colleagues that you don't realize when you're using words that are foreign to the rest of us.

Even if you know the interviewer understands, don't assume the viewers, listeners, or readers will. Stay away from technical words, obscure acronyms, and professional jargon, or you'll lose the very people you're trying to win over.

A final note on being understood: The briefest way you can make your point is probably the best way. Once you have made it, stop. Don't make the mistake of talking on and on until you're interrupted, lest the important part of your message get lost in all the verbiage.

Also, simple statements are less likely to be subject to creative editing. Edit yourself; don't let the reporter or producer do it for you.

If your response is honest, positive, and understandable, you're well on your way to making it memorable, too. If your answer is quotable, you'll be quoted, and that's what you want - for your audience to hear and remember your side of the story.

Two things can make what you say even more memorable: humor and stories about real people. Be careful, though. Humor is absolutely out of place in some situations. You'll do yourself real damage if you make light of a tragedy or an emotion-packed issue. Likewise, you'll make a big mistake if you make a joke at someone else's expense.

If you aren't naturally witty, don't try to be. Just make a short statement that's honest, clear, and positive. Then stop.

You're almost always safe with stories about real people. Did a fellow association volunteer do something noteworthy that relates to the subject at hand? Tell us about it. Several professional associations have begun programs in which their members volunteer a day of service, free, to the needy, for example.

Another thing that can help you meet the criteria of a good answer is pride. Chances are, if you're proud of what you say, you have a good answer.

Let's see how all these elements work together to help you create a good, informative answer to a confrontational question. Q: Why are you bribing our elected officials? A: I agree with most Americans that political campaigns are much to costly. Political action committees help ensure that you don't have to be rich to be elected.

Wow. You began by acknowledging there is a problem - the expense of running for office. It's not a problem of yours in particular, but it's a problem nonetheless. You resisted the knee-jerk reaction of making a denial. Then you went on to say what you do, and it's something of which you can be proud: You're helping keep public office open to all Americans. The question implied you're subversive. The answer shows you're a patriot. Your statement is honest, clear, and concise and contains nothing unfamiliar to the average person.

Once you have answered the reporter's question, stop talking. If the interviewer wants more information, you'll be asked a follow-up question. Unless and until that happens, forget the details. You'll only bore, or worse, alienate the audience.

The Society of the Plastics Industry, Washington, D.C., recently faced a crisis it handled beautifully: an increase in town proposals to ban plastics. SPI was lucky it wasn't a sudden crisis. It developed over time, so the association and its Council for Solid Waste Solutions had a chance to prepare. SPI responded by following the aforementioned formula.

SPI selected a number of representatives, staff, and volunteer leaders to meet demand for media interviews and other public appearances and trained them to communicate effectively.

In their public appearances these representatives invariably acknowledged the existence of a problem. Then they focused on the positive. They explained why plastic has become so prevalent, its wonderful qualities, its strength, light weight, low cost, and so forth.

The public reacted to this straight talk by remembering how much it really does like plastic, and how much it would miss it if it were banned. Now the association is talking about its recycling efforts.

The above examples show there is no reason to allow others to control what you say. An interviewer may try to force you to respond in an emotional, defensive, or negative way. But no one but you can make you look bad.

Mike Wallace and Sam Donaldson can help you make yourself look bad. They are skillful confronters. If you don't understand their game, you'll lose every time - whether you agree to talk to them or not.

Too often today, one simple fact is forgotten: A news report is a public service. Remember that you're not really taking to the reporter but to the public - people like you and me.

Like most journalists, most people are fair-minded. They want to hear what you have to say. So tell them without doing battle, without misleading them or wasting their time, and without confusing them.
COPYRIGHT 1992 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Lustberg, Arch
Publication:Association Management
Date:Jan 1, 1992
Previous Article:Defining nonprofits.
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